REAL STEEL – Blu-ray review

“Real Steel” has all the brainless fun of Rock’em Sock’em Robots and the heart and rousing fight sequences of “Rocky.”

If you’ve seen “Rocky,” you know pretty much the whole story of “Real Steel,” which is “Rocky” with robots. But how cool is it that producer Steven Spielberg advised director Shawn Levy (“Date Night,” Night at the Museum”) to not just direct something that doesn’t have “night” in the title, but also to build a bunch of full-sized, working robots instead of relying on all things CG?

If you remember those Rock’em Sock’em Robots that the Marx toy company made popular back in 1964, you probably suspect that those plastic dueling boxers (who went at it until one of their heads popped up like one of those “it’s done” turkey thermometers) might have influenced the filmmakers as well.

But it’s also an established Hollywood trope to have a flawed father teamed with a child, with the mom out of the picture. We saw it first most memorably in “The Champ,” a 1931 drama starring Wallace Beery as an alcoholic ex-fighter who traveled around with his son (Jackie Cooper), though he wasn’t much of a father. And there’s a little of that in this Touchstone/Dreamworks movie.

Set in a future where robot boxing has replaced human pugilism because the bots could fight to the death–something audiences wanted to see–“Real Steel” is the name of the Big Show. But that’s not where the story begins. Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is a perennial small-timer, an ex-fighter who only had moments of greatness. With the sport taken over by robots, he adapted . . . sort of. Charlie has been traveling carnivals and other local venues with a beat-up robot named Ambush, trying to stay a few steps ahead of creditors who are just as happy to break his legs as collect what they’re owed.

The action picks up when Charlie, who, like Beery’s character, drinks too much, has his eye on a pretty lady in the crowd instead of manning the controls. Those few seconds of flirtation are enough to get Ambush ambushed. With his robot destroyed and him owing big money to the promoter, what else can he do but go on the lam . . . again. But his luck changes when two men inform him that his ex-wife has died and his sister-in-law is wanting custody of an 11-year-old son he’s just as happy to give up. He’s had no contact with the kid, and no interest in becoming a dad at this late stage. In the courtroom, however, he notices the size of the engagement ring on his sister-in-law and sizes up her new husband as his ticket back in the game.

I won’t go into too many details, but this road pic gets rolling when it’s arranged that the kid (Dakota Goyo, who looks like a dead-ringer for Jake Lloyd, from “The Phantom Menace”) will spend one first and last summer with his dad before custody goes to his aunt. Charlie has it in mind that Max will stay with the daughter of his old trainer at the very gym she’s trying to keep operative in memory of her father. But the kid has other ideas, and soon the two of them are on the road with a new robot.

Evangeline Lilly (“Lost”) has kind of a throwaway role as Bailey Tallet, the operator of Tallet Gym who’s also adapted to the new robots-in-the-ring changes. She’s grown technologically savvy, and can help with spare parts and repairs. She’s also the love interest, though most of the air-time goes to Jackman and Goyo. Lilly doesn’t even get a “Yo Adrian!” moment.

The focus is on father and son, and how fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree. It’s Max’s stubbornness in rescuing a second-generation sparring bot that gives them their unlikely contender and serves to bring father and son closer. As in “Rocky,” you can see the narrative structure unfolding, and yet there’s still that edge-of-your-seat excitement that comes from sports films done well.

It helps considerably that the robots and special effects are slam-bang knockout. Even the actors, in some of the bonus features, talk about what a difference it makes acting with real bots instead of a green screen. And it shows in the final product. The performances and camerawork are all solid, and it’s true that the robots steal the show. But for movie buffs, part of the fun is seeing all the allusions and parallels to “Rocky” and “The Champ.”

“Real Steel” is rated PG-13 for “some violence, intense action, and brief language.”

And it looks terrific in 1080p HD. Presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio and “enhanced” for 16×9 screens, “Real Steel” has a striking level of detail that makes the bots look as high-tech and futuristic as they really are. Human faces are natural looking, and the color palette–which varies from dusky on the fair circuit, to post-apocalyptic with another fight, and Vegas glitzy in the final sequences–is nicely varied and saturated according to what the scene demands. And the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50-gig disc is a good one. I saw zero problems with it. You’d hope that a slick action and special effects film would look terrific visually, and “Real Steel” does.

The audio is also marvelous, though I have to warn right away that there’s quite a gap between the softest conversation and the loudest effects and music. I found myself toggling up and down on the volume control. But just as the robots are dynamic, so is the audio. It’s as fully immersive experience, with an English DTS-HD MA 7.1 soundtrack spreading the wealth across all speakers fairly evenly in non-dialogue moments. Every crash resounds, and the LFE channel has plenty of work to do.

Included on the DVD is “Making of Metal Valley,” a 14-minute look at how the filmmakers constructed the set and shot footage of the most challenging scene; “Building the Bots,” a five-minute teaser behind the scenes at Legacy Effects, Stan Winston’s old studio; a brief (and not funny) blooper reel; and a fairly standard commentary from Levy. All the DVD features are included on the Blu-ray, plus in briefer offerings Levy introduces two deleted/extended scenes; “Countdown to the Fight: The Charlie Kenton Story” gives a back story for Jackman’s character; Sugar Ray Leonard talks about his fights and the importance of having a good cornerman; and if you’re one of those who can’t just sit and watch a movie without fidgeting, Second Screen allows you to connect to your iWhatever and interact while watching.

Bottom line:
I watched “Real Steel” with my 13-year-old son, and we both thought it would be just an okay film, based on the trailer. But “Rocky” allusions and parallels and Oscar-worthy special effects really elevate it. You find yourself cheering as loudly for the underdog robot as you did with Mr. Balboa.